The timing for Attorney General Eric Holder's visit to Capitol Hill today was perfect. On the heels of the staggering revelation that the FBI requested — and received — authorization for the National Security Agency to vacuum up phone records from Verizon, a Senate committee had the chance to inquire into how and why the apparent privacy breach occurred. That is not in the least what happened.
Even before Holder arrived at the Senate Appropriations Committee meeting, it was clear that any number of senators had his back. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said he was "glad the NSA is trying to find out what the terrorists are up to." Senator Dianne Feinstein of California noted that the NSA's work was "called protecting America." Senator Saxby Chambliss labeled the snooping "nothing particularly new."
And when the hearing started, the attitude was much the same. Democratic chairwoman Barbara Mikulski began by noting the current budget crunch, and assuring the audience that the group wanted "to make sure that they know we value them." Looking Holder in the eye, she said "We want to say thank you." In her intro, she didn't mention Verizon. (She did later inquire about "what I think is an explosive situation — the federal prisons.")
When it was his turn, Republican senior member Richard Shelby gave Holder a slightly harder time — but on other issues. For example, he challenged the administration's desire to close Guantanamo and move prisoners to the domestic United States. When he did want to criticize Holder, it was on "the controversies that have engulfed the attorney general over the past few weeks" — in other words, the subpoenas of the media phone records and the implication that one Fox News reporter might be charged with a crime. This, Shelby indicated, had "tarnished the efficacy" of Holder's position.
Holder was prepared for this critique. "As long as I am attorney general," he said, "we will not prosecute any reporter doing his or her job." He reiterated that his department was working with the media to tighten rules around press inquiries. The senators seemed satisfied.
While Holder was present, three senators raised the issue of the NSA snooping directly. The first was Susan Collins of Maine, who wondered why the same rigorous court review that applied in the Verizon case didn't exist for drone strikes. (The president mentioned doing so a few weeks ago, but it wouldn't add a lot of transparency.)
Then it was Illinois' Mark Kirk's turn. "When government bureaucrats are sloppy," he said sternly, "they're usually really sloppy." So, he asked Holder, how can you assure us that the records seized in the Verizon request … didn't include members of Congress?
Not regular citizens, mind you. Not the 99.99 percent of Americans who have absolutely no connection to terror. But how could Holder be sure no members of Congress had their information included? Holder replied, "With all due respect, I don't think this is an appropriate setting to discuss that issue," implying that such a conversation would be better in a non-public venue. There's validity to Kirk's concern, of course. The executive branch should certainly not be eavesdropping on legislators. But that concern is at best secondary in the eyes of most Americans today.
Holder also chided Kirk for the question, reminding him that the senators had been "fully briefed" on the surveillance and implying that he should already know the answer to the question. Mikulski took issue with that, saying that such claims "drives us up a wall" because it usually only means Senate leadership.
The last person to raise the NSA issue substantively was South Carolina's Lindsey Graham. Holder had few stronger allies on the committee than Graham. "I hope the people appreciate we're at war," Graham said, then continuing, "I'm a Verizon customer. It doesn't bother me one bit for the NSA to have my phone number."
Which echoed what he told Fox and Friends this morning.
I don’t mind Verizon turning over records to the government if the government is going to make sure that they try to match up a known terrorist phone with somebody in the United States. I don’t think you’re talking to the terrorists. I know you’re not. I know I’m not. So we don’t have anything to worry about.
During the hearing, Graham declared that it would be "catastrophic" to take tools away that, he pointed out, had originated under Bush and been continued under Obama. And, he implied, to great effect. (Graham also asked about the value of the intelligence from Guantanamo, asking Holder to agree that it had proven a "treasure trove." Holder demurred.)
Toward the end of his testimony, which lasted less than an hour, Holder made one statement that appeared to be the only one to betray his inner feelings. "Whoever the attorney general is a year, two years from now," he said, he would want that person to be able to do his job without encumbrance. It was a very vague, very off-handed reference to someone else doing his job, an idea that he — as recently as last night — has consistently suggested wouldn't happen.
And if he continues to face a level of critique similar to what he saw this morning, there's no reason to think that he's going anywhere any time soon.